Before business travelers step foot in a foreign country, many companies prepare them for the realities and challenges they may experience via pretrip briefings. In addition to the usual topics you expect to be covered, such as security, health-related risks, entry/exit requirements, etc., another important subject is cultural awareness.
In fact, Ed Daly, editor in chief of the global intelligence division at WorldAware (formerly iJET International), an integrated risk management company that helps organizations with pretrip briefings and is a partner of American Express Global Business Travel, says this cultural training very much falls under a company’s duty of care in regards to its travel risk management.
“A lot of times people consider duty of care about security, but oftentimes it’s culture that can cause some of the biggest headaches for companies trying to do business abroad,” he explains.
And as Daly knows from his experiences during his early days of traveling, just one inadvertent faux pas can cause serious offense.
There’s one incident in particular that still sticks out in his mind — when he was dining in a restaurant in Istanbul and the waiter came by to see how he was enjoying his meal. Because Daly had just taken a bite and didn’t want to speak with his mouth full, he put his index finger to his thumb, giving what he thought was the universal symbol for “OK.” His gesture was met with an angry look from the waiter, which Daly did not get until he was in a cab back to the airport and a truck cut them off. When the taxi and truck drivers gave each other the same gesture he had given to the waiter, that’s when he realized the “OK” sign in the United States means something entirely different in Turkey.
Now, imagine that had happened during a business meeting instead.
Those kinds of faux pas are why WorldAware spends a lot of time talking about culture when doing their pre-trip briefings. Even something as simple as a greeting can go sideways when you don’t know the proper etiquette.
For instance, as Daly points out, in the United States we typically say, “How are you?” But it’s asked in a very curt and cursory way and is not meant to elicit a response other than “I’m good.” In some countries, however, that question may lead to a lengthy conversation about family and personal affairs.
Also falling under the greeting category are the concepts of personal space and physical contact. In some countries, a hug, even between business associates who’ve just met, is expected, while in other places, a handshake or bow is customary.
Other topics WorldAware covers with clients include eye contact — whether that’s something that is expected or frowned upon in a culture, particularly between men and women — and proper conduct during a business meeting.
For the latter matter, it goes beyond how to dress and how important punctuality is (though those are both crucial, too). But in some countries, there may be etiquette rules surrounding how to treat seniority and whether it’s appropriate to speak up during a meeting or wait to make a point until you’re asked a question.
Daly says, “We’re so accustomed in America just to interjecting in the middle of meetings. We’re just much more aggressive in how we conduct and express ourselves and get our ideas out there, whereas in another culture that might be seen as quite rude.”
Also wrapped up in this is how to communicate, whether to speak slowly and if it’s fine to be more casual. Perhaps there’s a language you should avoid speaking openly when in a certain country.
WorldAware also addresses the delicate topic of gender and how men and women can be treated very differently around the world.
“We just saw in Saudi Arabia that women got the right to drive and it’s such a revolutionary thing there, but it’s something we [Americans] take for granted,” Daly comments.
Then there are the everyday actions that are benign in one place but taboo in another, like picture taking in public. “In some countries,” he says, “not only can that be a cultural issue, but it also can be a legal issue.”
Finally, Daly likes to close the conversation with how business meetings often end themselves: promises.
“We say in the United States, ‘We should definitely do this again. I’ll definitely call you.’ In some countries, they are looking for you to actually do that,” he says, “so be wary about the kinds of promises you make when you leave a host or meeting.”
A few tips for travel training
For travel departments conducting their own in-house pretrip briefings, Daly recommends that no matter how you’re distributing the content to have employees sign off that they have reviewed the material, particularly when they are traveling to high-risk regions and their safety relies on it.
In addition to tailoring the content to a specific region, Daly advises making the briefings relevant to different levels of travelers. Those who go on the road frequently and have become inured after visiting the same destinations multiple times may need to be reminded about keeping their safety top of mind while more novice travelers may require reassurance that any potential threats aren’t very likely as sensational news reports make them out to be. (For tips on how to deal with this latter type of traveler, check out this Atlas article on managing fears.)
And one final thought as we’re considering the safety aspect: It’s not just about travelers minding the cultural etiquette rules but also appearing like they belong. To lower their risk profile and chances of becoming a target, travelers should be taught about the importance of fitting in, making sure they dress and act the part to blend in.